The Best Lasagna Ever

My name is Jessa, and I am a planner.
You know the type: I’m an organizer, and I like when things are set up ahead of time. Yes, this is because I am totally OCD as well as being more than a little bit neurotic. Having plans in place is comforting, because then I don’t have to think about it anymore. I like to know how things are going to go before they happen, and I have a very hard time with surprises.
But this is nothing new – we all know I’m off my rocker.

So I figure, why fight it?
I have learned, over time, to embrace this part of myself and find ways that this seeming flaw can be used for good. For example, I am very skilled at meal planning, and I always make extra servings to bring to work for lunches during the week. In this way, I can free up my night and morning times for important things (like blearily bumbling about in the kitchen trying to make tea to wake myself up, or a luxurious 15 minute hang out with the heater vent before heading out into the cold).
So imagine my surprise when I made a giant pan of lasagna to serve as an after dinner (read: mid-band rehearsal) pick-me-up, and the 4 of us managed to eat nearly the whole pan! So much for my glorious intentions of lasagna lunches. That said, it is a testament to simple food, done well: comfort foods like lasagna, casseroles, and pans of enchiladas just make people happy.
Even if they’ve already had plenty of food.

This lasagna is paramount in my comfort food arsenal. I do not skimp on cheese, and I use many, many spices and flavors in the slow-cooked sauce. I do not drain the sausage meat before I add it to the sauce. This is not diet food, by any stretch of the imagination. It is rustic, it takes all day to put together, and it gets many pans dirty. It uses up all the excess chard growing like mad in our early-spring garden. It is recklessly rich and massively easy to eat too much of.
It is everything a lasagna should be.
Namely, it is gone in one sitting. I couldn’t have planned for better praise than that.

Wild Boar Sausage and Chard Lasagna
(makes one MASSIVE pan, with some leftover sauce)
for the sauce:
1 lb sausage meat (if you are using cased sausage, remove it from the casing and crumble it)
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 large bulb fennel, cleaned thoroughly and sliced
about 1 c white button or crimini mushrooms, chopped
1 large can of diced tomatoes (about 4 c, or 8 diced fresh tomatoes plus 1 small can of tomato paste)
3/4 c red wine (I used the last of a bottle of zin I had sitting around)
1 bay leaf
2 tsp fennel seed, either fresh or dried
1 tsp each dried basil, oregano, marjoram, sage
1 tsp red pepper flakes (or about 1/2 small dried red chili, chopped)
1 Tbsp sugar
salt and pepper to taste
for the lasagna:
1 Tbsp olive oil
pre-made sauce (see directions below, or try my oven-roasted heirloom tomato sauce recipe)
1-2 large bunches of chard, stems removed (about 8 c, loose)
1 lb mozzerella cheese, sliced into thin rounds
1/2 c shredded asiago or parmesan cheese
12-15 lasagna noodles (pre-cooked to al dente and cooled in a water bath)
In a dry pan (a large sautee pan or stock pot would be fine, as would a deep frying pan), brown the sausage. If it’s sticking, you can add some oil.
Note: I used some wild boar sausage that we made with friends last fall from a pig one of them had hunted. It had some added garlic and spice (some sort of red pepper/vinegar hot sauce was used). To up the fat content a little, we used some heritage pork butt in there as well. Unfortunately, it either didn’t get mixed long enough, or the fat wasn’t cold enough, or something went wrong, because the cased sausages were very grainy when they were cooked. This recipe is, in part, due to my attempts to use up this sausage (removed from the casing) so that we have space in the freezer to try sausage-making again.

Once the sausage is browned, remove it from the pan. To the remaining grease, add the prepped onions, garlic, mushrooms, and sliced fennel, and cook until tender. Add the bay leaf, fennel seed, and spices (but not the sugar).
Let this all cook down for a bit (the mushrooms will weep quite a bit of liquid, which will then start to evaporate back out). Once the pan is getting close to dry, pour in the wine to deglaze the pan, followed by the tomatoes and all their juices. If you’re using fresh tomatoes, mix the contents of one small can of tomato paste with about 1/2 c of warm water and add it in too.
Season with 1 Tbsp of sugar (trust me) and salt and pepper to taste. Add back in the sausage, and any cooking juices that have sweat out, stirring to combine everything. Let this simmer on the stove for at least an hour – it only gets better the longer it cooks.
In the meantime, pre-cook your lasagna noodles. Yes, I suppose you could use those fancy “cook in the sauce” ones, but I prefer the organic ones I get in bulk at the local coop grocery store. They are very thick and need to be boiled before use. When the noodles are cooked to al dente, place them in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. I often prep enough noodles to make a few lasagnas (especially now that I know how fast they can be eaten!), storing them in a gallon zip-top bag with about a Tbsp of olive oil to prevent sticking. Then I can throw together a lasagna in a very short amount of time.
At this time you can also cook the chard. After a thorough washing (our garden can get a little muddy during the rainy season, and it’s always good to check for sneaky bugs hiding out in the curled-up leaves), I remove the stems and tear the leaves up into pieces about 2″ square. These get tossed into a steamer pan (I bought it at a yard sale – I think it’s actually for steaming pork buns and the like, with one section for the water and another perforated section on top where the cooking happens) until they are soft. If you don’t have a steamer, you can easily cook down the leaves in any pan with a lid – just add a bit of water to start the wilting process. This will cook down a LOT, and you’ll have about 1 c of cooked greens at the end.
To assemble the lasagna, coat a cake pan or casserole dish with a bit of oil. I use my 9 x 13 pyrex baking dish, as it has a fancy rubber top which makes storage or transportation a breeze once the lasagna is baked. Lay down one layer of noodles (it takes three to cover the bottom of my pan). Ladle on enough sauce to coat the noodles thinly – a lot will seep underneath them. Layer on about 1/3 of the steamed chard, and enough mozzarella that there will be some in each bite. Then place on another layer of noodles, and repeat the sauce, chard, and cheese. Continue doing this until you have used all of the noodles, or have run out of the other ingredients. Top with a final layer of sauce and top the whole thing with mozzarella (sometimes I add some shredded asiago or parmesan to the top as well).
Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until the cheese starts to brown. Longer cooking (without burning) is good here, too. I love the crunchy baked cheese on the top!

Take my word for it – make two. At least.
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